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Spirituality and Money: Knowing is Only Half the Battle

This article was written by in Consumer, Spirituality. 5 comments.

This article is written by Consumerism Commentary’s columnist, Ellen Cooper-Davis. Ellen’s column looks at the role of spirituality within the context of personal finance. For an introduction to this column, see Ellen’s first article, The Pastor and the Purse. Your feedback is welcome.

It’s time for a little geography lesson.

Look at the tag in your pants. Right there, below the strict instructions not to put them in the drier, which you, like me, probably ignore, it tells you where your pants were born. “Made in Mauritius,” my pants tell me. The magic Interwebs let me know that this is a tiny island nation off the southeast coast of Africa.

PantsNow I am curious. Because in my experience, small island nations don’t necessarily fare well where clothing manufacturing is concerned. So even though a part of me doesn’t really want to know…I check on the labor practices of the manufacturer. The results are not encouraging.

This means I will have to find a different source of pants. And since I’ve raised the question of ethics in manufacturing, it also means I’m more likely to intentionally seek out brands of clothing that have higher standards. Oh, sure, I could shrug and try to forget I ever looked that up, or pretend that sweatshop labor does not clash with my values at all… but it does. And I did. And that’s the problem. Once you know something, you can’t un-know it.

Most of us move through our consumer lives in blissful ignorance. We don’t know where our clothing, gadgets, trinkets come from, and frankly, we don’t care. We just want them to look good, work well, and entertain us. We don’t want to know about child labor or sweatshop labor or toxins. Because if we knew — if we really allowed ourselves to open our eyes and see the truth, and to notice the places where this truth grates against our most deeply-held truths — then we would have to change.

Ignorance isn’t really bliss. It’s just ignorance. As a society, we would never tolerate knowing nothing about where our food comes from. We want some reasonable assurance that it is safe to eat, that it will nourish us, that it is what it says it is. Why would we deliberately embrace ignorance when it comes to materials, labor conditions and sources of other consumer goods? After all, those are real human beings on the other end of our supply chain. To pretend otherwise is not only ignorance, but dangerous.

In some ways, this is the essence of any spiritual path. It is about taking the teachings and values of that path, and aligning your real, everyday life with them. This includes what we do, what we say, how we treat people, and what and how we consume. It isn’t easy, and no one does it perfectly, but we can all start where we are. I can start with my next grocery trip, or the next time I need new socks. I can start with rearranging my investment portfolio, or I can start by exploring fair trade gifts for this holiday season. Here, at the intersection of soul and money, there are hard questions to be asked. If I am who I say I am, what must I do?

What consumer goods do you research from a values perspective? What do you wish you could evaluate from that perspective, but don’t know how? What would you prefer to remain totally ignorant about? Are there any “lines in the sand” for you, issues or practices that you absolutely do not tolerate in your consumer choices?

Published or updated October 30, 2011.

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About the author

Reverend Ellen Cooper-Davis is the minister of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands, Texas, and the author of Keep the Faith, a blog on progressive religion for The Houston Chronicle. Find her on Twitter and Google+. View all articles by .

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

So, if everyone were to stop buying clothes made by sweat-shop laborers, that would put the laborers out of work. Is that likely to be a better position for them, than otherwise?

In a lot of places where child labor is used, it gets the children off the streets. It might not be safe or pleasant, but it’s safer and more pleasant than begging in the streets.
As more companies move there to take advantage of the cheap labor rates, labor becomes less available, and so the ones who have been doing it longest get better pay and better conditions. Eventually, they can drag themselves out of the hole they’re in. It takes time, but be aware that the alternative to working in a sweatshop is probably not better (begging, starvation, death)

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avatar 2 Anonymous

I agree with Andy. I would rather buy from manufacturers who go for cheap labor because I know my purchase will help bring food in their tables and prevent their kids from living in the streets.

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avatar 3 Ceecee

This is a tough one. To balance one’s budget with ethics around the world. And what has been said in former comments is true—-look at China. The used to work for horribly low wages—now they have worked their way to higher pay. I don’t think there is an answer to this question that covers all.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

“As a society, we would never tolerate knowing nothing about where our food comes from.”
Where did you get that idea? Maybe a subset of people are organic, fair trade, locovore eaters. But the vast majority of us just eat whatever we find on the shelf and don’t ask questions. This is just as true about our food as it is about our jeans.

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avatar 5 qixx

All my jeans say made in china with one exception that is made in the U.S.A. probably with imported fabric. It does follow on the manufactures being the same since all my jeans except the US made one are one of 2 brands.

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